University of Pittsburgh

The Dickson Prize in Medicine

2015 Dickson Prize Winner


Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD

D.H. Chen Professor of Bioengineering and Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences,
University School of Medicine
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute


Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, was born on November 18, 1971, in Boston, Mass. He earned his bachelor’s in biochemical sciences from Harvard University in 1992. He then entered Stanford University’s Medical Scientist Training Program, earning his PhD in neuroscience in 1998 and his MD in 2000. He completed a residency in psychiatry and a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford.

The exploration of brain circuitry has long been the focus of Deisseroth’s research. By developing ways to study electrical signals that influence neuron communication, Deisseroth continues to unmask what he calls the “syntax of the brain’s internal language.” His lab designs methods for high-resolution imaging and investigation of intact biological systems with a focus on vertebrate central nervous systems. With optogenetics, which uses light to control precise activity in mammal brains, and CLARITY, which enables high-resolution structural imaging of intact brains, Deisseroth has created tools leading to new understanding of neural circuit function while enabling further research potential across the scientific community.

By pioneering optogenetics, Deisseroth and his colleagues developed a technology that uses light to precisely control millisecond-scale activity in certain cell types in the brains of mammals. When Deisseroth started his own lab at Stanford in 2004, he knew that algae produce a protein that, after absorbing light, opens a gate in cell membranes. By transferring the gene for the light-sensitive protein into neurons, he was able to use its gate-opening ability to stimulate or inhibit neurons via optical fibers delivering millisecond flashes of light. The approach, which he named “optogenetics” in 2006, has been used to experimentally modulate behavior in freely moving mammals.

A breakthrough moment came in 2007 when Deisseroth and researchers used fiber optics to deliver pulsed light to neurons in the hypothalamuses of unrestrained, sleeping mice in order to wake them up. In 2009, his team published further discoveries on controlling behavior using light and optical controls on virtually any type of cell in the brain. A practicing psychiatrist, Deisseroth has also used optogenetics to study behaviors related to depression, anxiety, reward, and motivation in laboratory animals. For example, his lab has determined the precise causal role of defined activity patterns in dopamine neurons for motivated behavior and reward learning, which may shed light on the underpinnings of depression, substance abuse, and physiological reward processes.

In an April 2013 issue of the journal Nature, Deisseroth described his lab’s technique for turning a brain transparent. The process, which he named CLARITY, uses a detergent to strip away lipids that normally block the passage of light. Other groups had tried to clarify brains in the past, but many lipid-extraction techniques dissolve proteins and thus make it harder to identify different types of neurons. Deisseroth’s group solved this problem by first infusing the brain with acryl­amide, which binds proteins, nucleic acids, and other biomolecules, creating a firm gel from the resulting transformed brain. CLARITY allows researchers to view large networks of neurons with unprecedented ease and accuracy. The resulting transparent tissue can be used to chart long-distance connections between neurons and has helped identify individual structures and networks in human brain tissue. CLARITY has also been used to study disease mechanisms and is potentially a tool for the diagnosis and prognosis of cancer and autoimmune diseases.

Deisseroth’s lab has shared optogenetics and CLARITY methods with thousands of other labs, resulting in widespread discovery, including research on major depression and optimal placement of electrodes for brain stimulation for treatment of Parkinson’s. He has distributed reagents worldwide, and the lab provides free hands-on training in their methods.

Deisseroth, became the D.H. Chen Professor of Bioengineering and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford in 2012 and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator in 2013. He continues to serve as an inpatient and outpatient attending physician in psychiatry at Stanford, where he is director of undergraduate education in bioengineering. He is a peer reviewer on a number of journals, including Nature, Neuron, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Deisseroth’s roles in psychiatry and bioengineering have led to an ongoing career highlighted by distinctions in both areas. His honors and awards include a 2005 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award for optogenetics; a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers; election to the Institute of Medicine in 2010, the National Academy of Sciences in 2012, and the German National Academy of Sciences in 2014; the Robert J. and Claire Pasarow Foundation Medical Research Award; the Zuelch Prize; the Perl Prize; the BRAIN prize; the Koetser Prize; the Nakasone Award; the Alden Spencer Prize; the 2013 Dickson Prize in Science from Carnegie Mellon University; the Keio Prize; the Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences; the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research;; the Richard Lounsbery Award from the National Academy of Sciences; and others.